The Kirov Affair

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

Sergei Kirov, First Secretary of the Leningrad party organization since 1926 and Politbiuro member from 1930, was assassinated in the Smolnyi Institute, the headquarters of the Leningrad party obkom, on December 1, 1934. The assassin, Leonid Nikolaev, was a frustrated party apparatchik who had gained entry to Kirov’s third-floor office and shot him on the spot. He was immediately apprehended, interrogated under the personal supervision of Stalin, and executed. Within days of the assassination, Stalin announced that Nikolaev had been put up to the job by Zinovievites — that is, supporters of Grigorii Zinoviev who had been ousted as Leningrad party boss in 1926 and was in disgrace — as well as, incongruously, remnants of White Guardists and other “socially alien” elements. Arrests of Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and many of their associates followed as did summary executions of alleged White conspirators. Zinoviev and Kamenev were convicted of “moral complicity” in the crime and sentenced to prison. Eighteen months later, in July 1936, they and fourteen others stood as the accused in an elaborately staged “show trial.”

Assumptions that Stalin had staged Kirov’s assassination to eliminate someone whose popularity in the party was eclipsing his own and/or to have a pretext to launch a wave of terror within the party to assert his own dictatorial power long circulated among dissident party members and in the »migr» community. They were recycled by western historians in search of an explanation for the bloodbath that overwhelmed the party during 1936-38. Yet, at least two official investigations in the 1960s and a Politbiuro Commission appointed in 1989 failed to establish Stalin’s complicity or that of the NKVD in Kirov’s murder. The assassination did churn up an atmosphere of heightened vigilance and political tension at all levels of the party. However, the link between it and what is known as the Great Terror seems more circumstantial than direct.

Kirov’s position was assumed by Andrei Zhdanov, a loyal follower of Stalin. One byproduct of Kirov’s assassination were the reports by the NKVD on popular attitudes. As analyzed by historians who recently gained access to them, they indicate that many people attributed the act to dark forces (in some versions, the Jews), looked forward to Stalin sharing the same fate, and were more concerned about the return of food shortages than the political fallout. Nevertheless, within the party, Kirov enjoyed martyr status, and his name was affixed to cities, streets, and such venerable institutions as the former Marinskii Ballet in Leningrad. The Kirov affair illustrates the power of rumor and legend in a society where reliable information was hard to come by.

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